With GamesCom right around the corner, Ilari Kuittinen, Housemarque Games’ CEO and Co-Founder, took time out to speak with GamesIndustry’s Brendan Sinclair about Housemarque’s upcoming PS4 exclusive. Ilari and Brendan also discussed topics such as next-gen consoles, the state of indie development and other industry trends.
Typically, the phrase “spiritual successor” is code for “we don’t have the IP to do another one.” Why is your PS4 game using it?
We think of the new game as being a “spiritual successor” to Super Stardust, simply in the sense that it’s from the same team and it’s a shoot ‘em up which we believe fans of Super Stardust and the genre as a whole will enjoy.
You specialize in downloadable titles. From what you’ve seen, how do you think the next-gen consoles will change the game for a studio in your position?
We hope that more and more gamers will find our smaller, high-quality downloadable games even more appealing than they do on the current console generation. I think there are two major ways to build player excitement in our offerings: improved online experience, and treating games like a service. For game creators, this kind of shift represents a new opportunity, and also a new set of challenges. We need to approach our development philosophy from a different angle, and start thinking in terms of retention, and what it means to create a game that will have a life cycle measured in years rather than months.
What do you expect the biggest hurdle to success to be in the next-gen?
Many factors are driving up development costs, and this has consequences on the business side. During the current console cycle, we’ve been lucky enough to create critically-acclaimed games and new IP that in most cases have also been commercially successful. In order to develop cool new experiences, there must be a certain amount of resources and funding in place. Ultimately, games will need to generate more sales or we’ll see the end of these smaller games on consoles. This would certainly be a big loss for the core gamer crowd.
The next generation of downloadable titles must find a bigger audience. As a developer, we need to find clever ways to support our games with additional content, and provide options that keep gamers playing longer.
We’ve heard from bigger publishers that the increasing cost of development for this generational leap will actually be quite manageable compared to the last one, but you don’t seem to agree. Is the increase disproportionately high for indies for some reason?
I think we’ve created some of the “bigger” downloadable games published during this current generation, and those needed to be pretty successful to make a return on investment. For us, the business has been more than sustainable; in fact, over the last several years we’ve tripled our headcount to 48. Of course, our story is not everybody’s story. In truth, only a handful of development studios have done well with downloadable console games.
Housemarque has been making smaller games on consoles for years and it seems you’ve had a perfectly sustainable business for decades. What’s happening now to make that approach unsustainable?
During this console generation there were only a handful of 1M+-selling downloadable games, which surprises me because the console installed base for PSN and XBLA games is today well over 150 million. Something has to change if we want to attract more attention from consumers. This means raising the technology bar (i.e. using the Unreal engine), supporting physics simulation (i.e. Havok), and supporting more features like multiplayer and persistent online worlds. Of course, all of these things add cost. Calling downloadable games “smaller” is true when you compare them to AAA games, but the cost of some downloadable games is in the range of several million dollars. The only conclusion is that abundant sales are required to break-even at the given $10 – $15 price point.
You’ve worked on PC, mobiles, and Xbox systems before. What’s made you partial to working with Sony?
With only 48 employees, we would spread ourselves too thin if we developed for every system out there. As a game studio, our commitment to certain projects and partnerships excludes other possibilities. Last year, we were given the opportunity to start working on two new games with Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios Europe XDEV team, and that was a great deal for us since they’ve been a trusted partner for many years. The partnership allows us to continue creating the cool core games we want to concentrate on, and also get our hands on new hardware as soon as it’s available.
Last year we saw Journey and The Walking Dead take home numerous Game of the Year awards. Do you feel like downloadable titles are increasingly expected to compete head to head with retail AAA efforts, at least in quality if not in sales?
Downloadable titles need to offer different experiences than retail AAA games. Competing directly against those games doesn’t seem to be the current expectation. However, it’s a fact that downloadable games need to deliver on the quality front, and the distinction between the two categories has more to do with scope and certain production values that you would expect only in blockbusters.
In the future, everything will be downloadable, so the distinction between “downloadable” and “AAA” will be increasingly blurred. As you’ve noted, there are already some smaller games like Journey and The Walking Dead that have sold as many copies, if not more than, many bigger-budget AAA titles.
Housemarque has been around for nearly 20 years. How have the challenges associated with being an independent developer changed in that time? Have things grown harder or easier?
When we started, the only way to get your game published was to convince a publisher to fund development and retail distribution. Nowadays, with so many digital channels to choose from, it’s never been easier to get your game out there. Also, developers have more funding options. On the other hand, competition has greatly increased and best practices are changing all the time.
In simplest terms, the challenge for any business is how to grow and adapt to its environment, and build something viable and long-standing. From our perspective, this challenge has never been harder. For example, if a developer chooses to self-publish, then marketing and PR expertise must be in place, and the company must think in terms of customer acquisition. If you choose to run a games service, you need the right personnel to facilitate it. These variables add to the industry’s overall complexity and create signficant challenges.
I notice Outland is the only game that’s released on two platforms. Do you have an aversion to multiplatform development?
We also developed Angry Birds Trilogy for Xbox 360 and PS3, but we prefer to pick our battles and focus on less in order to create the very best game possible. We really like the PS4’s architecture and power – hence, developing our new games exclusively for SCEE is the perfect opportunity for us.
The PC seems to be in the midst of an indie renaissance of late, but Housemarque hasn’t been active on the platform. Do you have interest in working on the PC more in the future?
We certainly would like to be more active on PC, but at the moment we simply don’t have the bandwidth to do much about it.
You dabbled on the iOS with Furmins. What were your big takeaways from that foray into mobile games?
By now, everyone knows how tough the market is for any new developer. Having a good game really isn’t enough. The publishing side of the equation is much more complex than you may be aware of, and it’s hard to breakthrough without significant investment in marketing and customer acquisition. That said, we have a new iOS game in development and this time we are better prepared for the challenge.